When Devotionals Attack

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a big fan of devotionals. As instructional material, I usually find them both shallow and unnecessarily flowery. As inspirational material, they usually feel emotionally manipulative. And as material that is supposed to propel me towards prayer and meditation, my previous complaints generally end up distracting me instead.

All that is simply a matter of preference on my part, but when devotionals contain false doctrine, they become dangerous. After all, that light and “inspirational” format often discourages critical thinking while the superfluous language can make it more difficult to even understand and articulate what’s wrong. In those kinds of circumstances, it’s easy to come away with false teachings under the guise of inspirational impressions.

This is certainly the case in a recent devotional over at Christ Hold Fast. Stephen Paulson posted a meditation on Psalm 51, a penitential lament in which David confesses his sin with Bathsheba after being confronted by the prophet Nathan (the “You are that man!” episode that is one of the more poignant moments in David’s life.)

Much of Paulson’s clumsy and disjointed prose is just postmodern bafflegarble designed to leave an impression without actually saying anything at all. When he declares that “The old seminary teachers defined sin as anything said, done, or thought against the Law of God” he doesn’t come right out and say they are incorrect, but connects them without logic to the Church of Rome at the time of Luther, leaving the impression that it’s wrong-headed. He briefly notes David’s guilt when it comes to covetousness, adultery, murder, and so forth but quickly passes by to address a peculiar man-made “sin,” leaving the impression that the actual Divine Laws that David violated are less important without actually saying so. It’s a contemporary writing style designed to be emotionally evocative that just happens to also provide plausible deniability to writers who want to say outlandish things without the burden of being accountable for them.

But at the core of the meditation lies the real problem with this devotional: making the story of David and Nathan all about this peculiar man-made sin.

David’s sin was that he had no preacher. What to do? God sent a preacher who blotted out David’s transgression so that if David ever went back to ask what happened to this sin concerning Bathsheba, Uriah, and the hidden God of majesty, the preached God would say: What sin?

So how on Earth does Paulson get from A to B on this? If you toss his word salad for a bit, here’s what you end up with. You might have thought that in Psalm 51, David was repenting of all the lies, murder, and adultery he committed by sleeping with Bathsheba and arranging her husband’s death to cover it up. But Paulson has moved beyond such mundane and legalistic affairs to a higher plane of interpretation. David’s sin, you see, was theological in nature–he didn’t have the Gospel right.

The first sleight of hand is when Paulson declares that David’s “real sin before God was his best quality—enthusiasm (trying to make God’s word true, faster).”**  But How was David using adultery to make God’s word true faster? Well, being part of Christ’s direct lineage, when David was laying with Bathsheba, he was actually trying to hasten God’s promises and control the Gospel by planting his Seed in Bathsheba. This is what Nathan’s parable of the poor man robbed of his single beloved sheep was *really* about: Not David robbing Uriah of his wife and life when he had a kingdom and a harem of his own, but David not treating the Gospel as the poor man did his beloved sheep. And God taking their illegitimate child’s life wasn’t anything so crass as a punishment. He just wasn’t going to let David define the Gospel.

So in the end, David’s sin wasn’t really a matter of the Law, but rather an absence of Gospel. He just didn’t have someone to properly explain it to him. Hence, David’s only sin is not having a preacher to preach the good news, so God sent Nathan to cheer him up.

Words cannot describe what a bastardization this is of the Biblical text. I challenge you to try to actually read 2 Samuel 11-12 according to this interpretation. See for yourself how much damage you have to do to Scripture to make this even kind of fit the words.

The obvious faults to even the casual reader are legion. It reads ridiculous motivations into the story. I sincerely doubt that David was watching Bathsheba bathe and thinking, “Hoo boy, I’d sure like to plant mankind’s savior in DAT. Better hurry up and git her done.” Certainly, the fact that he found Bathsheba’s pregnancy so inconvenient is enough to establish that. Paulson’s “interpretation” also forgets that David already had lots of wives and lots of children–most of whom were not in Christ’s direct line, and most of whom weren’t immediately killed by God for David’s over-enthusiasm for siring the messiah. And, as is typical of Radical Lutheranism, It completely forgets about the principle human victim all this–Uriah. Even the prophet Nathan’s parable that so dramatically impresses the gravity of what David did to Uriah is redirected from the natural reading of the text to a bizarre symbolism in which the ewe is really the Gospel. In short, it contorts one of the most straightforward and dramatic texts in the Old Testament beyond all recognition for the sole purpose of transforming David’s sin into a mere theological mishap.

This is ultimately why Radical Lutheranism isn’t Lutheran at all. Luther bound himself to the Word of God. There he stood because that’s what God had clearly said. Radical Lutherans, on the other hand, have to torture Scripture until it confesses to what they’ve already chosen to believe. Consequently, what they believe, teach, and confess bears only a passing resemblance to Lutheranism–a glamour crafted by slathering on some common terminology. It fools people who want to be fooled, but no one who can see through bafflegarble is taken in by this.

Like every false religion, Radical Lutheranism has to create a new scheme under which its adherents can attain innocence before God. Christ’s substitutionary payment for their sins is insufficient because that righteousness is not of themselves. After all, they still feel guilty for having committed the sins covered in Christ’s blood, and nobody likes feeling that way. Scorning God’s true grace and mercy, they then craft a system in which they were never truly guilty in the first place–a system in which God’s condemning law is an arbitrary construct that God Himself disregards just as blithely as the Radical Lutheran has. Under such a scheme, they never really sinned in any significant way, so God can just brush it all under the rug without any fuss.

But whether it’s Radical Lutheranism or some other flavor, every form of antinomianism always comes with a price-tag: a brand new law crafted by the antinomians and used to oppress their opponents. In this case, the new law both demands people provide a forgiveness that is as costless as their sins are harmless and forbids the preaching of any of the reminders thereof found in God’s Law. Anyone criticizing the Radical Lutheran is immediately found guilty of despising their man-made Law/Gospel hybrid and labeled a self-righteous pharisee.

There’s nothing Lutheran about Radical Lutheranism. There’s not even anything Christian about it. In the end, it’s all just another heresy that proclaims another gospel.

 

**I did struggle with what Paulson meant by “enthusiasm” and “enthusiasts” here. Does he mean it in the Lutheran sense–those who seek God’s revelation apart for His Word and his salvation apart from His Means of Grace? Or does he mean it the colloquial sense of somebody who is really excited about something? I eventually decided on the latter. If he’s using it in the Lutheran sense, he’s deliberately redefining it away from its normal definition to mean “trying to make God’s word true, faster.” Now, that could be an instance of a common postmodern rhetorical trick–an attempt to leverage a word’s connotation without applying its definition in order to trigger an impression. However, “trying to make God’s word true, faster” does sort of fit with the colloquial definition of “excitement,” and he marks it as David’s “best quality,” so I’m giving Paulson the benefit of the doubt and assuming he means it that way. I could be wrong.

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8 Responses to When Devotionals Attack

  1. Todd Wilken says:

    Excellent critique of faux-Lutheranism.

  2. TDD says:

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  3. PJ says:

    I remember hearing a story about a lady who wanted to tell her husband about an abortion she had before she met him. She talked to her pastor about it and he gave her absolution and then she asked if she should tell her husband about the abortion. And the pastor said “what abortion?” This is that same garbage.

    I thought that was a horrible story the first time I heard it. The pastor was using confession and absolution wrongly IMO if it was a true story. Confession and absolution doesn’t remove real world consequences of sin. If the woman followed through with talking to her husband about it would have eventually brought them closer together and helped him to understand her better, if worked through in a biblical manner. This is an abuse of confession/absolution.

    Didn’t that story come from Rosenbladt? Tullian T credits him when he wrote about it in the Christian Post.
    https://www.christianpost.com/news/what-abortion.html
    Why in the world is Rosenbladt not included in this radical Lutheranism stuff? I had always liked him but the more I go back and listen to the Gospel for those Broken by the church the more I think… something is missing, the same way I started to realize something was missing in Tullian T’s preaching.

    • Matt says:

      Eesh. That abortion story is a terrible confusion of righteousness coram deo and righteousness coram mundo. And given how much the guilt she carried with her must have affected their marriage, you’re right–opening up about it probably would have been beneficial for both of them.

      As for Dr. Rosenbladt, in my opinion, the issue with him is that he’s come to define himself in terms of opposition to American Evangelicalism. From his perspective, most churches are functionally Pelegian–trying to make good conservative Americans by teachings God’s law without ever really mentioning the Gospel. And to be fair, that perspective isn’t entirely unwarranted–there are too many churches like that.

      The problem with defining yourself in terms of opposition, however, is that you tend to run headlong into the opposite error. That’s what I started perceiving from him. As far as I know, he’s not a Radical Lutheran, but often appreciates Radical Lutheran language because it’s starkly anti-Evangelical.
      What’s more, he sees little need to talk about the Law because in his mind, everyone else already talks about it way too much.

      Unfortunately, something taken for granted quickly becomes something forgotten–even the Law. And speaking in Radical Lutheran language promotes the theology just as effectively as deliberately teaching it. Historically speaking, a lot of the early heresies came out of exaggerated opposition to the heresy that preceded it.

      • Kelly says:

        What you are describing– people choosing to define themselves entirely in opposition to American evangelicalism– is consistently the problem that I see. If you question a Lutheran who is using vague, inaccurate, “radical”-sounding antinomian-esque language, they will inevitably begin lamenting how awful it was when they were previously evangelical, and how if you only knew… Now, I’m a former evangelical myself, and I am fully aware of this cage stage with Lutheran converts. But you HAVE to move beyond it, or all you have is people arguing via their own subjective bad experiences and quarreling over whose past suffering was worse. (Plenty of Lutheran converts have been burned by liberal churches, too, after all.)

        And you have, as you say, people falling off the other side of the horse. The danger of “Radical Lutheranism” is the belief that there is no other side to fall off… that their system is just increasing levels of Gospel glory all the way to infinity. It is the dangerous error of the more-Jesus-centered-than-thou, a pride that cloaks itself with self-reproach and faux humility.

  4. Very helpful analysis. Thank you.

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